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Jeer, Jeer for old Notre Dame. That has been college football's fight song since the Irish announced last week that they were thumbing their noses at the College Football Association's new TV package with ABC and opting instead to sell their six annual home games from 1991 through '95 to NBC for a total of $38 million. Only Notre Dame could cut such a deal because, in the nearly 80 years between Rockne (as in Knute) and the Rocket (as in current star Raghib Ismail), the Irish have had eight national championship teams and seven Heisman Trophy winners, not to mention the Four Horsemen, the Gipper and various other heroes, all of which have produced a national following that is unique in sports.
Yet no Notre Dame gridiron victory ever jolted the football world quite like the one the school pulled off on what might be called the greediron. When the Irish made their power play with NBC, the protests ranged from outraged cries of betrayal to impassioned accusations of hypocrisy to a sort of panic about the future of big-time football. "It's been a fun year for all of us," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno. "We got to see Notre Dame go from an academic institute to a banking institute."
"I wasn't surprised by this, I was shocked," said Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley. "Surprise, shock, greed and ultimate greed. That's the reaction I'm getting from people."
"To me," said Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, "Notre Dame has vacated its leadership role. This is greed."
The Irish, however, by no means deserve all the brickbats. The CFA and its executive director, Chuck Neinas, are guilty of missing signals at best, and of less-than-candid negotiating at worst. The other members of the CFA—which started the brave new world of college football on TV six years ago by wresting control of telecasts of their games from the NCAA—hypocritically blamed Notre Dame for doing to them what they had done to the NCAA: putting self-interest above the common good. As for the networks, NBC was smiling the smile of the smart-aleck kid who has pulled a fast one, CBS was red-faced for blowing a big one, and ABC was threatening all sorts of breach-of-contract lawsuits while agreeing to a revised, devalued CFA deal for 1991 through '95 that contains no Irish home games. If anybody finds any white hats here, please dial 1-800-IMA-HERO.
Strange as it may seem, the Irish may have done college football a favor by breaking away from the CFA, which now has 63 members in its TV package. Notre Dame's defection may encourage some other members to step out on their own, too, thus forcing the sport to undergo the massive overhaul it sorely needs, given the way the game's small coterie of glamour programs has come to dominate the have-nots. The day soon may be at hand when traditional conferences are revamped and a superclass of 40 or 50 major schools emerges.
When the NCAA got into the TV business, in 1952, one of the main reasons was to thwart Notre Dame's efforts to have all its games televised nationally. The old DuMont Broadcasting Network was ready to expand a previous agreement with the Irish, but the NCAA and its executive director, Walter Byers, nixed it on the grounds that it would give Notre Dame too much of a national recruiting advantage. When it came to television, the NCAA strove to spread the wealth and the exposure. As recently as 1983, the NCAA was doling out $69 million among various schools, conferences and divisions, while allowing no team more than four national TV appearances and two regionals during any two-year period.
The 1950s contretemps between the NCAA and Notre Dame was resolved in the NCAA's favor only after the Irish were threatened with an opponents' boycott. Even the Irish can't get on TV without somebody to play, so Notre Dame grudgingly gave in and went about doing the best it could within the NCAA framework. But Wayne Duke, the former Big Ten commissioner who worked for Byers in those days and was involved in the formation of the NCAA's TV policy, is among those who believe that Notre Dame and the Reverend Edmund Joyce, its former executive vice-president in charge of athletics, never gave up the hope of the Irish having their own national network.
Last week, after the announcement of the deal between Notre Dame and NBC, Duke ribbed Byers about Joyce's dream. Duke called Byers, who also is retired, and said, "Walter, this is Ed Joyce, and we finally got you s.o.b.'s." To which Byers promptly responded, "Yeah, but it took you 40 years, didn't it?"
Under Joyce and the school's president at the time, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame football went downhill between 1956 and '63. Hesburgh and Joyce—the Ted & Ned Show, as their administration came to be known among alumni and students—felt it was necessary to de-emphasize football while improving Notre Dame's academic reputation. However, in 1964 Ara Parseghian took over as coach, and the Irish put together what amounted to their own national TV network, a collection of some 110 independent stations, including one in almost every major market of the country, which showed replays of Notre Dame games. Syndication was O.K., but it wasn't the same as being on one of the three major networks live. That opportunity began to emerge when the universities of Georgia and Oklahoma filed a restraint-of-trade suit against the NCAA. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1984 ruled against the NCAA and. in effect, opened the way for every school and conference to cut its own TV deal.